President Monaco discusses Greek life crises, political activism

University President Anthony Monaco answers questions from Daily Editor-in-chief Kathleen Schmidt and Executive News Editor Joe Walsh in his office in Ballou Hall on May 11. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

Toward the end of a complicated, eventful and occasionally tumultuous academic year, University President Anthony Monaco met with the Daily to share his thoughts on the year as a whole and discuss plans for next year.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What do you think were some of the most significant accomplishments of yours and at Tufts this year?

Anthony Monaco (AM): It was an interesting year, particularly with the presidential election. I thought that the campus tried to have a lot of discussion and debate and informed how to get students to register to vote. So JumboVote was a big deal.

And then of course, after the Trump administration took hold, we found ourselves in a position to make statements around some of his executive orders that we thought were threatening to our community, particularly around the travel ban and immigration as well as undocumented and [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] students. But in addition, we’ve been trying to support the research budget, which is also under threat. That’s unique to this year because of quite a contentious election.

On the academic front, I think two things were quite significant. One was the successful integration of the SMFA into the Arts and Sciences school, and that has gone well. Admissions for next year have gone well. There’s a lot of collaborations that are being set up between the SMFA faculty and various parts of the university, and they’ve integrated well into the governance structure of the Arts, Sciences and Engineering faculty meetings.

Also, we’ve extended our Bridge Professorship program, which is professors who have expertise in more than one discipline and in more than one school. We hired Susan Landau as the first bridge professor in cybersecurity between [The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy] and computer science department.

The third area of focus, although it hasn’t been as evident to the community, is that we’ve been doing a lot of work with faculty on planning the data science initiative, both on the teaching side and the research side and also fundraising for that.

On the student life side, we launched the Mental Health Task Force. … They’ve done great work all year getting feedback from students [as well as] gathering data not only for our undergraduates but also our graduate and professional students.

And the Student Life Review Committee was a very important aspect of the spring in particular. Given what we learned about the Greek life issues and the broader issues in student co-curricular organizations, it was important for a group of faculty, students, alumni and a few trustees to come together to discuss those issues and make a report with recommendations.

TD: What would you say were some of the major challenges of the year?

AM: I think one challenge was trying to manage a very contentious election. In my role as president, I have to be apolitical when it comes to elections, trying to support people with different views, but then once Mr. Trump became president, speaking out when I thought his executive orders and other policies were affecting various aspects of our core mission as a university.

I think the second challenge was reacting to the knowledge about different hazings and other types of activities going on in Greek life and trying to do an assessment of that in a more holistic manner, where we could take into account all student organizations and try to refocus our attention on what we want to achieve with student life.

TD: We’ve certainly seen a lot of student activism; that’s been definitely a focus of attention. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think that there’s a point at which the sort of student activism that we’ve seen goes too far?

AM: In my first 90 days [as president], there was a group who took over Ballou Hall, so student activism has been a part of my experience at Tufts almost every year on different issues. We certainly want our students to feel passionately about issues, to advocate for them as they see fit. We do support free speech on this campus as a major tenant of our community. But they have to advocate for their causes in a way which is not disrupting to the function of the campus and other students’ education.

When student activism goes to a point where it is disruptive or not allowing faculty, students or staff to do their jobs, then I think that’s where it goes too far. We want to listen carefully to what student activists have to say because obviously they’re advocating for a cause they firmly believe in. But at the same time … it doesn’t mean we agree with them all the time. We can’t run the university and think about where we want to take it based solely on a very vocal group. It shouldn’t be who shouts the loudest. It should be thoughtful about what is good for the entire community, and there’s a diversity of opinions in our community on every issue.

TD: Do you think that the protests when Governor Charlie Baker spoke would be an example of students being too disruptive?

AM: I thought that the disruption of his interview was a form of activism which got their point across, that they disagreed with Governor Baker, and it wasn’t disruptive in the sense of length of time. They made their banners and they shouted to voice their opinion.

But the sad part is they didn’t stay to listen to his answers. … If you’re going to complain or voice an opinion against someone, you should at least have the respect to listen to their answers. You may not agree with them, you may want to ask further difficult questions of that person, but what I see as a problem is that students are unwilling to listen.

I also felt that the chants outside were not aligned with what I know about Governor Baker’s policies. It just seemed they weren’t realistic about what they were shouting.

TD: Do you think it’s part of a larger sense of hostility around different points of view on campus, or was it more of an isolated incident?

AM: I don’t think it’s an isolated incident. I think it’s a good example of how students, when they really are passionate about a particular view, sometimes are not willing to sit down and listen or have a dialogue with the other side because they feel that there’s nothing they can say that’s going to make them change their mind.

If we’re going to go ahead as a country or go ahead as a community here, we have to be willing to listen to the other side. If you go to the table with someone having an opinion but are at least open-minded enough to listen to their point of view, you may come away thinking differently. And that is part of an education and development of a person. And I think that’s something that students sometimes maybe don’t fully appreciate as one part of having strong opinions.

TD: What is the status of the Student Life Review Committee? If decisions have been made, when will we know?

AM: The group has finished their work for this semester. … We did get a lot of feedback; there was a range of views around the table. They worked hard to understand each other’s views and try to come to a consensus on what we wanted to express going forward about student life. That report has been made with its recommendations and I met with them to discuss it.

We decided not to release the report [this semester] because it’s quite detailed. We want to give a chance for the administration to thoughtfully make a set of responses and an implementation plan around the recommendations and bring that back in the fall when students are back on campus. … One possible way forward is for us to release the major themes of the report soon.

I am very, very grateful to all the members who took part in this and the community at large for providing so much feedback. I think they’ve put a very thoughtful report forward, which in particular deals with the cross section of not only safety and wellness of students when they’re involved in organizations but also thinking carefully about the diversity, inclusion and equity of all of our student organizations.

Particularly, [it addresses] how that relates to our current social geography: where space is allocated, where current groups are located and what we might be able to do about that. … [That] could offer a very pivotal point for us to think about how those different issues intersect in a planning sense. I think that’s where the committee got quite excited about the future and optimistic that we have a real opportunity here to do something unique for our community going forward.

TD: In terms of Greek life in particular, do you have any general thoughts on the system as it exists right now and about potential problems with it, points of reform and whether you believe that they’ve made a good faith effort?

AM: First, let me just say around the investigations, those are still ongoing and the Student Life Review Committee has not focused on that. Some have been completed, and one fraternity has decided to cease and not be on campus anymore. Others will have decisions made over the next weeks to months.

I think that there’s a range of students on this campus who have different needs related to their social outlets on campus. Some want to be involved in Greek life, some want to be involved in other types of student organizations and there’s overlap between all of these. For me, the richness of a student community is to have many different types of organizations. … And 25 percent of our students are involved in Greek life, so obviously for many students, it’s an important part of their experience at Tufts.

That said, any organizations, and in particular Greek organizations, need to adhere to a code of conduct which fulfills our values and adheres to our policies. What we had reported back to us from the investigations is that many of these organizations had behaviors which were not aligned with those and [were] in some cases downright criminal, and we cannot stand for that. If the Greek organizations want to stay on campus, they have to change. They have to think about the way they’re inclusive of other members of our community and assure us that they’re going to look out for … safety and well-being.

TD: Is there a chance that the Greek life system as a whole will be phased out? Is that an option that’s being considered or is that not on the table?

AM: It was on the table in terms of the Student Life Review Committee. They certainly discussed whether that was an option. I think the feeling around the table was that, if one was to make that decision, what is going to replace that? Would the Greek system go into off-campus housing and create issues with the community that we all don’t want?

Since there isn’t a viable alternative at this moment, it made more sense to work with the Greek community to reform and reflect on their future … [rather] than just abolishing them and then leaving a void, which would be difficult to fill.

Given that we’re implementing an on-campus residential strategy, which could change the social geography on campus, it was more of an opportunity to work with the Greek system in light of other organizations that want space allocation going forward than to think about abolishing them as a solution.

TD: Considering historical problems with Greek life, are you hopeful that they’ll be able to change? There have been problems and there are continuing cycles of reform. How do you think it will be different this time?

AM: One, we have to set very stringent expectations and criteria by which they can exist and have members on campus, and that’s going to be worked on this summer.

Second, I think it’s important that the student leaders of those organizations are accountable for their membership in terms of the criteria for inclusiveness, for the types of behaviors that are tolerated and not tolerated. Given that this leadership and the student body changes every year, it’s also up to the administration to make sure that they’re getting the training and education on their roles and responsibilities so that we don’t end up in this situation again.

I’m not saying it’s not going to happen again, but we have to make sure we have a system in place that minimizes that risk [so that] we’re sure that the student leaders and all the members of these organizations understand clearly what is acceptable behavior that is expected of them and how they have to align with the values of the entire community.

TD: Can you speak a bit about the housing working group and whether the university plans on expanding the housing capacity in a significant way?

AM: The Residential Strategies Working Group reported last year, and part of the report focused on how we can optimize a number of our residential offerings. We got feedback from students that we put first-year students together, sophomores together and try to increase the number of on-campus opportunities for juniors and seniors so we reduce the number that live off campus. …

And then for the juniors and seniors, offering them suite-life living in our existing dorm stock but also trying to renovate our wood-frame houses that are on campus into junior and senior residences over the next couple of years. We’re starting that in Medford over two summers, and then we’ll be moving to the Somerville side. … There’s a lot of opportunity in that strategy to build new wood-frame houses, and we will be doing that hopefully on both Medford and Somerville after we get the appropriate permissions.

There is an opportunity to think about the social geography because, if you do this correctly with thoughtful planning, one can give space to different types of groups that want to have an affinity to live in the same house together.

We understand, and this was brought up in the Student Life Review Committee, that there aren’t enough social spaces on campus. Is there an opportunity, as we finish new buildings and reallocate space, that we could create more … bookable social space that could have a sizable group of students have an event or a party, not having just the Greek system as an outlet for parties on campus? We’re looking very carefully at that and have some exciting opportunities that could come forward in the next two years.

TD: There have been a lot of protests about tuition hikes, and there was a point in time when Tufts was need-blind. Is that being reconsidered, and is that a priority for the university?

AM: There was a one- or two-year period that Tufts received … a spend-down gift. It was cash given that had to be spent over a short period of time, and that allowed the university to really increase financial aid so that they were need-blind for one or two years. The difficulty with that situation is, once the money is spent, you’re back to your own operating budget, and they could not continue that. Before I arrived, they went back to being not need-blind.

Now … we’re trying to increase financial aid at a percentage every year above the tuition increase so that we’re constantly offering more financial aid than we did the year before.

What was clear to me is that, if we wanted to significantly move that needle, we needed to increase the endowment for financial aid. … We raised $95 million in the endowment over a four-year period. That has allowed us to increase the amount of financial aid on top of what we can gather from tuition.

We are still some ways away from being need-blind. I don’t want to set need-blind as the goal. It would be lovely to achieve in my time here, but I certainly want to make sure that every year we’re doing better than the last year in terms of the budget for financial aid. We’re launching a [fundraising] campaign; this will be a high priority. Whether we can get there in the next five years, I don’t want to hazard a guess, but I certainly would like to see us continually push that in the right direction.

We have tried to keep tuition increases under four percent during my time here, and two years running it has been 3.6 percent. That’s been one of the lowest increases of our set of schools. … So we’ve done all we can in managing our budget to keep the increases as low as possible.

We’ve also completely restructured our administration across the university through the TEAM [Tufts Effectiveness in Administrative Management] effort to lower our operating costs of administrative functions. … We will continue to seek ways to reduce our cost, but we’re also thinking of other ways in which we can increase income that will allow us to offset our cost.

Our biggest costs are salaries. Probably 70 percent of our costs are for faculty and staff, and they have to have a cost-of-living increase every year. So it’s hard to think that we would ever have a time that we would have no tuition increase at all. … What we can try to do is make them as minimal as possible and do a better job communicating to parents and students why the increases are happening every year. We are planning to try to do a better job with that communication next year.

TD: Looking forward to next year, what are some of your priorities for the school?

AM: The biggest priority for next year is getting the Data-Intensive Studies Center going. This is [for] new courses in data analysis, big data, statistics and providing research training and opportunities across the university. … That will be the one of the biggest academic pushes next year, to get that all together and then launch it completely the following year.

The second thing that’s happening next year is that a number of new facilities will come online. The Science and Engineering Center will open, so it will be great to see that being used as a new complex. We are also planning a very exciting new academic building next to the Green Line Extension. We’re bringing that to the Trustees to approve the next phase of design, and that will offer new classrooms as well as academic space for like-minded departments that would be in that area.

Lastly, we’ll be launching a fundraising campaign in November. It’s going to be called A Brighter World. It’s a very exciting opportunity for us to increase the amount of money coming into the university as gifts … that help support our very aspirational goals.

TD: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AM: It’s been a not-easy year in many respects, but I think overall, given the external circumstances, we’ve come through very, very, very well. There’s a lot of exciting momentum in the university at the moment in terms of our academic program, interest in the school, athletics. … We have opportunities to really make a once-in-a-generation change to our residential facilities and really think intently about what we want to achieve with the student experience.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for clarity and length.